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Bend it like Bhutia: Meet India's David Beckham

By James Montague, CNN
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • India will play its final game of the Asian Cup against South Korea
  • Despite a population of over a billion, the national team is ranked 144th by FIFA
  • Captain and striker Baichung Bhutia is India's best known footballer
  • He talks to CNN about trying to promote football in a cricket-mad country

Doha, Qatar (CNN) -- Sitting in the lobby of his team's hotel, it is clear why Baichung Bhutia is often compared to David Beckham.

With his softly spoken voice, good looks, rock-star lifestyle of TV endorsements and fashion shows, not to mention his evergreen footballing ability, the 35-year-old captain of the Indian national football team has been an ambassador for a game in arguably the one part of the world that football forgot.

Yet he has become a hero to millions after becoming India's first -- and so far only -- professional footballer in Europe whilst captaining the national team to their most successful period in living memory - namely their appearance at the 2011 Asian Cup.

They are already out, having conceded nine goals in their first two matches but results, surprisingly, have been of secondary consideration. This is, after all, the first time India has qualified for a major international tournament in close to three decades.

"You can't match the quality of the Australian side, but we can learn experience," a magnanimous Bhutia said the day after their 4-0 defeat to the Socceroos.

"The Asian Cup is the kind of tournament any player wants to play in; especially coming from India where we haven't qualified for 26 years ... it's a big step for us just getting here and playing the best in Asia."

Despite having a population of over a billion India is ranked 144th in the world by FIFA, just above St. Vincent and Grenadine (population: 104,000).

So keen were FIFA and the Asian Football Confederation to bring India's huge potential market in to the football family, the Bhangra Boys were given a bye from qualification after winning the AFC Challenge Cup, a developmental tournament where they played the likes of Tajikistan and Afghanistan.

In India it is a cricket dominated country but we have some areas where football is really big
--Baichung Bhutia

Football's Indian black spot has bucked the trend of the game's global ubiquity. Whilst football's simplicity helped sweep it across the world at the start of the 20th century, largely on the back of British colonial expansion, another colonial import -- cricket -- remained the game of choice in much of the country.

Football was relegated to a handful of remote outposts like the north eastern Himalayan state of Sikkim, Bhutia's home, and the former Portuguese colony of Goa. "Football is the only game played in Sikkim," he explained.

"Now with television, cricket has come in but in Sikkim football is still the number one sport. Everyone around my school, my village played football and loved it.

"In India it is a cricket dominated country but we have some areas where football is really big. If you look at the past five ten years you'll see it is one of the fastest growing games with kids."

Bhutia found his calling in the teaming, north eastern, 15 million-strong regional capital of Kolkata, a rare football crazy city divided by a sectarian derby every bit as fierce as that between Glasgow Celtic and Glasgow Rangers.

On the one side is East Bengal, the team that plucked Bhutia from Sikkim, on the other Mohun Bagan. When the two meet at the Salt Lake Stadium, the second largest football stadium in the world, as many as 150,000 people turn up, making it the biggest derby in world football.

"It's like Celtic and Rangers, you are either born East Bengal or born Mohun Bagan," Bhutia explained.

"The best memory of Calcutta [now called Kolkata] football was playing in front of 140-150,000 people in a derby match. In that match, luckily, I scored a hat-trick which was the first hat-trick in 100 years.

"The following for football, and the clubs in Calcutta especially Mohun Bagan is massive."

But with this passion has also come violence. The fixture has been plagued with riots since the 1920s. Clashes between the two fans after a match in 1981 left 16 people dead and it is this violence that Bhutia believes is one of the main reasons football's development has been so slow.

"We need to do much more for the fans. In terms of facilities and infrastructure. We need to bring in kids and women to the stadiums," Bhutia said.

"It's a bit rough but we need to do more to popularize the game and give the option for every sector of society to watch it. There's a lot of violence that takes place during the derby matches. We need to bring in good supporters who can show their passion for the game."

Bhutia himself experienced the wrath of the fans when he committed that cardinal sin: crossing the city divide and playing for his hated rivals. Playing for Mohun Bagan, didn't go down well.

I felt it was not right for me to carry the torch and it was the only way I could help them and support them
--Bhutia
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"I did get hate calls, hate SMS," he said. "When I went around Calcutta, go to a mall, you come across fans and you could see the reaction. I think it's fair enough; they love their club and anyone they love so much, for them to betray you, I'd feel the same."

Bhutia's prolific scoring in the National Football League, now rebranded the i-League, was noticed in England. He was invited to train with several clubs before he signed for Bury, then in England's third tier, becoming the first Indian player to sign a professional contract in Europe.

But injury, cultural differences and sheer bad luck meant Bhutia never fulfilled his potential.

Whilst his exploits abroad had made him a hero to India's footballers, it wasn't until recently that Bhutia enjoyed wider recognition.

In 2009 he won the Indian version of TV show "Dancing With the Stars", but it was a moment of principle -- refusing to carry the Olympic torch on its way to the 2008 Beijing Olympics in protest of China's policies in Tibet -- that made him a controversial figure in India, both inside and outside the sport.

"Sikkim is a Buddhist state and I have a lot of Tibetan friends, so for me I really look up to His Holiness [The Dalai Lama] because I really love his concept, the non-violence movement is something I really believe in," he said.

"I felt it was not right for me to carry the torch and it was the only way I could help them and support them. I had a lot of criticism from people saying you should not mix sport and politics, but I have some friends who are fighting for human rights over there [in Tibet]."

Since then Bhutia, who was on the verge of retirement, has enjoyed a career renaissance under the team's English coach Bob Houghton. "My best moment was qualifying for the Asian Cup, and I played a major role to take the team there," he recalled.

"We won three major tournaments, all three I was Most Valuable Player, I completed my 100 caps and qualified for the Asian Cup. So the best three years was after I thought I would retire. I'm glad I changed."

The pack of Indian reporters at the Asian Cup all want to know one thing: Will Bhutia retire after the tournament?

Injury has so far robbed him of making his Asian Cup debut until the final game (where he'll win his 109th cap) spurring him on to try and achieve the unthinkable: leading India to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil.

"If I was fit and playing all these matches maybe I would have thought about retiring after the Asian Cup," he said.

"But I would love to retire after playing there [at the World Cup], whatever the result. Just leading the team, playing in the first eleven and playing 90 minutes." India probably won't beat South Korea.

And it will be a tall order making it to Brazil 2014. But Bhutia may lead India in a different capacity: He has been mooted as a future national coach.

"I'd really like to be somewhere where I can change the structure of Indian football," he admitted. Perhaps then Bhutia could lead India out of the international wilderness for good.